By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Although it didn't receive much media coverage, Michael Strahan was inadvertently gouged in the eye during the Giants' regular-season finale against Oakland. So Uni Watch wasn't surprised to see Strahan wearing a visor shield during last Sunday's playoff game.

That made Strahan the latest convert to this season's big trend. On both pro and college gridirons, this will go down as the season when visors reached a tipping point, going from specialized equipment to increasingly commonplace accessory. Seriously, the last time there were so many guys wearing shields in front of their faces was back when people dressed like this.

And who can blame them? There's a multitude of facial hazards out there on the field -- if it's not a lineman gouging your eyes out, it's some clown spitting in your face. No wonder so many players want that extra layer of protection.

"There's definitely a lot more players wearing them this season," says Mike Sterner, the football marketing director for Oakley, which got into the visor market in the late 1990s and now makes the basic shield that most pro and college players wear. "At the marketing end, we've stepped up our efforts. Sales have doubled over each of the last three years."

So just how many players are wearing these things? "I don't have specific numbers," says Sterner. "But for most pro and major college teams, you're looking at four to six starters per team. Guys who've gotten gouged, obviously, want to wear them. And then once that happens, a lot of guys develop light-sensitivity issues, and often they get migraines from the light exposure, so they wear the tinted shields, especially for day games. So in addition to the clear shield, we offer a 60 percent gray, which is a light tint. Then there's a 45 percent gray, which is a little bit darker. And then a 20 percent, which is the darkest -- that's what LaDainian Tomlinson wears.

"Then we do special coatings. LenDale White and a couple of the USC guys wear a blue shield, [as do some players on Northwestern and Boise State, although some of the Boise players opt for orange instead]. UCLA has a mirror-coated shield. We do all that in-house -- it's called an Iridium coating, which is the same thing we use on our sunglasses. It actually increases contrast, so instead of just making everything look darker, it pulls some colors out, so the contrast is greater and you can see the ball better, see the grass better, and so on. It looks like Strahan was wearing a bronze or VR28. It's an increased-contrast lens that allows the wearer to better identify colors, contours and depth."

Uni Watch has no problem with clear shields, and neither do the NFL or NCAA -- any player can wear those, no questions asked. But the tinted models are trickier. The NCAA used to require special authorization to wear one, because they wanted a doctor or trainer to be able to see a player's eyes without removing his helmet if he'd been knocked unconscious. "But that rule changed last summer," says Sterner. "Now they leave it up to the team. So if the team trainer or doctor says it's OK, that's all that's required." That may account for a lot of the new visors seen in college games this past season.

And what about the NFL? "They require a doctor's examination, plus an examination by a separate NFL doctor," says Sterner. "They're very stringent about it -- quite a few players with eye conditions have had to jump through all sorts of hoops. What I've been told is that the league feels a tinted shield gives a player too much of an advantage, because you can't see his eyes."

Well, maybe. But Uni Watch thinks the real problem with tinted shields is aesthetic, not competitive, because they make all the players look like cyborgs, or video-game animations. You lose a certain emotional connection when you can't see a guy's face, y'know?

The weird thing is that the players, who are always complaining that the No Fun League won't let them express their individuality, are now frequently turning to the shields as a way of expressing themselves, even though the shields actually mask their expressiveness. Ronnie Brown, for example, who normally wears a clear shield, wore a sunburst-patterned model last month against the Bills, even though he wasn't authorized to do so.

"That's called a Fire shield," says Sterner. "It really sets you apart as an individual, which I believe is the main reason Ronnie requested it. He was fined, too, because he hadn't gotten clearance. And I think Clinton Portis [who normally wears a clear shield] took a fine for wearing a tinted shield without authorization [during the now-infamous game when he was also fined for wearing one striped sock]. A lot of guys see the fine as the price of marketing themselves."

Oh, please. Uni Watch doesn't see much marketing advantage in covering up your face (unless you're doing it like this), especially when everyone else is doing it too. And besides, the implicit message is pathetic: There's no "I" in "team," but there's one in "shield."

There's often an "O" involved in the shield, too: the Oakley stylized "O" logo, which appears on the upper tabs of the shields worn by most NCAA teams (including Oregon, which is sort of weird, because the Ducks already have their own "O" logo centered above the facemask, so the combined logos create a sense of "o"verload). But this logo creep is absent from NFL shields, because Oakley isn't an approved on-field sponsor, so the tabs are usually either clear or black.

"We've negotiated with the NFL for on-field placement of our logo, but we've never been able to come up with an agreement," says Sterner. "But occasionally a shield with our logo slips through, maybe because someone needed to get a shield right away and that's all we had. It happens."

A few NFL teams put their secondary logos or word marks on the visor tabs, including the Jets, Redskins and Bears. And when Priest Holmes started wearing a visor in 2003, he wore the team name on his tabs for most of the season, then switched to the NFL logo late in the season and for the playoffs, and then wore plain black tabs in 2004. (He eventually chose to go visor-free in 2005.)

"That's up to the equipment managers, they take care of those little logos," says Sterner. "I've done a couple of them myself, though -- I know Ricky Williams wore a couple of Dolphins logos that I made for him." (Actually, Uni Watch photo research indicates that while Williams wore the logo-emblazoned Fire visor during pregame warm-ups last Oct. 16 -- his first game back after his drug suspension -- he switched to a conventional, black-tab model for the game itself.)

Team logos occasionally appear on NCAA shield tabs, too. Reader T.C. Congi notes that Iowa QB Drew Tate wore little Hawkeye designs during the Outback Bowl. "Iowa's not contracted to endorse the shield, so they don't have to wear the 'O,' " explains Sterner, offering a hint of just how sordid all this sponsorship stuff can get. "He did have the 'O' during most of the season, however. I think they just wanted to do something special for the bowl game."

Visor history is surprisingly sketchy. Nobody seems sure who was the first player to wear one, even though most historians agree that it was probably less than 20 years ago. The March 10 entry on this timeline credits Buccaneers equipment manager Frank Pupello with inventing "the eye-screen that attaches to helmets" (as well as those insipid little hand-warmer pouches), although no date is given for when he supposedly did it, and no player is listed as the inaugural wearer.

The earliest visored player Uni Watch can remember seeing is Jim McMahon, after he left the Bears. He was definitely wearing the shield with the Eagles in 1990, and he continued wearing it during his subsequent stints with the Vikings, Cardinals and Packers. The real question is whether he was wearing it in 1989, when he was with the Chargers. Uni Watch recalls that he did, but photographic evidence suggests otherwise.

If McMahon wasn't the first, Lions LB Michael Cofer may have been. Uni Watch has seen pix of Cofer playing without a visor in 1988, but this photo could be from 1989, which would predate McMahon's tenure with the Eagles. If anyone has additional info or insights on this way-crucial historical matter, you know what to do.

While we're trying to figure out who was the first player to wear a shield, it's also worth pondering who'll be the last to play without one, because Uni Watch is willing to bet that the shield will eventually become universal, maybe even mandatory. Think that sounds a bit extreme? Maybe, but so did the idea of mandatory face masks, or even helmets, way back when. And when you think about it, why wouldn't a player want to protect himself from getting eye-gouged?

"Some guys I've spoken to, they say they'd actually like to wear it but they can't quite get used to it," says Sterner. "Some guys even have claustrophobic issues -- they don't want anything in front of their face. So sometimes it's more of a mental thing. It does take a little bit of getting used to, like any new piece of equipment."

Finally, Uni Watch couldn't let Sterner go without asking about Oakley's most notable moment of 2005: Manny Ramirez playing while wearing Oakley Thumps, which have a built-in MP3 player. Was it really just a case of Manny having trouble with the glare and grabbing the nearest pair of shades, as BoSox skipper Terry Francona lamely insisted?

"Actually, that's something Manny came to Oakley and said he would like to wear," says Sterner. "He wanted to wear 'em, he wanted to put his music in 'em. We pride ourselves in providing the greatest product to the greatest athletes, so they can perform a little better, so we were glad to help."

So there you have it: Manny Ramirez, great athlete and music lover. And given the number of NFL players who routinely wear headphones during pregame warmups, Uni Watch can't help but wonder if the Thump Shield can be far behind.

Best Dressed Mess
In case you missed it, fashion maven Mr. Blackwell issued his annual worst-dressed list the other day. And this year's list includes an athlete: Serena Williams, who definitely earned her way into the rankings.

But Uni Watch can't be bothered with petty nuisances like Nicollette Sheridan and Britney Spears. If Mr. Blackwell were really on the ball, his list would've looked like this:

1. The Oregon football team. Or, as more and more people are calling them, Phil Knight's design laboratory. Remember, you can't spell "Nike Sucks" without "Nike."

2. The Colorado Rockies. Memo to the Players Association: Please do us all a favor and insist that this design be banned as part of the next collective bargaining agreement.

3. The Cincinnati Bengals. It's nice that they finally have a decent team. Now they just need a decent uniform.

4. The Seattle Seahawks. The monochromatic look is bad enough, but has anyone ever offered a coherent explanation for the neon-mucous striping?

5. The Chicago Stags (née Bulls). Nice jersey; nice shorts. But not so nice together.

6. The Toronto Blue Jays. Fully deserving of inclusion on the list simply for having the worst rear-jersey typography in all of Major League Baseball. But the inept cap logo really seals the deal.

7. The Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Brewers. There are worse things than looking ugly -- like, for instance, looking really, really boring.

8. The Detroit Lions. Yes, Matt Millen should be fired -- because he's the one who had the brilliant idea of adding all that insufferable black trim to the team's uni.

9. The Buffalo Sabres. It's not easy to dishonor a once-proud franchise and a noble beast simultaneously, but somehow they've managed.

10. Serena Williams. Gets bonus points for dressing up as Courtney Love for Halloween.

Uni Watch News Ticker
Stunning news in the realm of hard-court hosiery, where Kobe Bryant returned from his suspension on Jan. 6 without his signature tights. And it wasn't just a one-game aberration: He was bare-legged again on Jan. 7, Jan. 9, Jan. 11, and Jan. 12. The end of an era or the end of an error? Uni Watch will let you be the judge. ... More tights news: Michael Redd, who had been wearing white tights at home and black on the road, is now wearing black at home (that's him in the background of this photo). And his teammate Maurice Williams has joined the men-in-tights brigade. ... In a related item, Georgia's Younes Idrissi has been wearing one-legged panty hose, due to a case of varicose veins (full details here, with thanks to C. Trent Rosecrans). ... Let's face it, if the Bengals had won last Sunday while wearing the worst uni combo in NFL postseason history, the Earth might have spun out of its orbit. ... Speaking of which, Swiss figure skater Stephane Lambiel appears to be a big Bengals fan (with thanks to Tony Ogmundson). ... In still more Cincinnati news, Ken Griffey Jr. will be switching to uni No. 3 this year, as a tribute to his kids, who all wear that number when playing sports. ... Meanwhile, now that it's playoff time, can't the Panthers finally decide whether they do or don't wear the team logo on their hips? ... See those yellow stripes peeking out from Carmelo Anthony's socks? Eagle-eyed Reid Tynan notes that it's because Melo's wearing Air Jordan socks underneath his NBA hose. ... Good article here about UK soccer teams that have stolen their uni designs from other teams (with thanks to Nathaniel Rawson). ... The Giants' dual memorial patch for Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch was missing from Tiki Barber's jersey on Dec. 31. ... NFL sock news: The posse of players wearing high whites continues to grow. Newly spotted members include Shawn Springs, Dennis Northcutt, Robert Griffith, Al Harris, Troy Brown and Kimo von Oelhoffen. ... The St. Paul Pioneer Press is conducting a contest for redesigning the Vikings', Twins', Timberwolves' and Wild's uniforms. Full details are here, and design templates can be downloaded here (with thanks to Robert Danneker). ... Michael Cooper notes that All-Pro place-kicker Neil Rackers was wearing his wedding band on the field this season. ... Interesting communiqué from Dane Drutis, who writes: "I was watching some of the under-17 hockey championships (yes, I will watch any hockey game I can). It was a 10-team tournament, but Canada sent five teams. So they split them up into different regional teams -- East, Quebec, Pacific, etc. But all five teams were wearing the Canada national uniforms, so you got odd Canada-vs.-Canada situations, and the player names on the back of the jersey were replaced with the region names. Either that, or there are more West brothers than Sutter brutters." ... Hey, if you think Oregon's football unis look weird, check out their marching band. They look like paratroopers -- with uniform numbers! That's loyal Uni Watch reader Matt Takimoto flashing the peace sign. ... Several readers noted that Villanova's Jason Fraser, who normally wears uni No. 20, was instead wearing No. 31 against Louisville on Jan. 5, with no name on the back of his jersey (which you can sort of see here -- that's Fraser at far right). But only Jordan Stuart figured out the reason for the switcheroo: Fraser began the game wearing No. 20, but then he got bonked in the nose and was bleeding all over his uni, and they apparently didn't have another No. 20 jersey for him, so he ended up wearing a nameless No. 31 jersey for the rest of the game. ... We all know NFL linemen are obsessed with tight jerseys and truncated sleeves, but David Arnott notes that Bucs DT Chris Hovan took that concept to rather freakish extremes during Tampa Bay's playoff loss to the 'Skins (although at least Hovan wore a tank top under his jersey, which, as David Ethridge points out, is more than he did in a game back in November). Maybe next season they'll just spray-paint the jersey design onto him... Speaking of truncated sleeves, has anyone else noticed that Bill Belichick's street-urchin look sometimes includes cutting the sleeves off his sweatshirt (which, as Caleb Borchers notes, he did in last Saturday's playoff game against the Jags) and at other times entails tucking the sleeves under (as he did in last year's Super Bowl)? Someone get this guy a sweatshirt that fits, pronto. ... Jags QB Byron Leftwich marked his return from a leg injury by wearing two towels -- along with a hand-warmer pouch and a play-calling crib sheet -- in Jacksonville's playoff loss to the Pats, making him the NFL's third two-towel QB of the season (after Trent Green and Aaron Brooks). ... Interesting uni-centric analysis from columnist Don Banks, whose Jan. 8 column included the following tidbit: "If I'm Seattle, I'm not taking any chances. I'm not wearing the greenish blue jerseys-greenish blue pants combination next week against Washington, thereby allowing the Redskins to go with their white-on-white look. Washington is 6-0 since donning the all-white uni." ... The Rangers retired Mark Messier's number on Jan. 12, and the team wore "11" shoulder patches for their game against Edmonton. In addition, because Messier was captain of both the Rangers and the Oilers, both head coaches wore little "C" lapel pins (sorry, no photos), which strikes Uni Watch as, um, a bit much.

Bowled Over
Uni Watch's recent survey of Rose Bowl uni history prompted some good responses:

Chris Stree points out that at least one other team has worn a rose-themed helmet decal in addition to the two that Uni Watch cited (Washington State in 1997 and Purdue in 2001): Washington State in 2003. They wore special jerseys for that game, too.

• From Matt Riegler: "The first time I ever saw a team do a bowl-specific uniform modification was in the 1981 Orange Bowl, Oklahoma vs. Florida State. That was Oklahoma's fourth consecutive Orange Bowl, and players who'd participated in all four got four little orange decals across the fronts of their helmets. That was also the game where J.C. Watts got absolutely creamed running the option and was groggy, to put it kindly, when interviewed by a sideline reporter afterward. All of which has nothing to do with uniforms, but I remember the Watts interview taking place shortly after a sideline report on the orange decals." Uni Watch hasn't been to find a photo of this. Little help?

• From Tom McCaffrey: "I imagine you're going to get more than a few e-mails about this, but the best Rose Bowl-related uniforms are those on the USC Song Leaders." And sure enough, Carl Mazzone adds, "Last year, during their trip to the Orange Bowl, the USC Song Leaders wore orange patches over their, well oranges."

Meanwhile, in more recent bowl news:

• It appears that Uni Watch spoke too soon when mentioning last week that Penn State usually goes without special jersey patches in bowl games. The very next day, the Lions wore a patch -- and a BCS helmet decal -- in the Orange Bowl.

• Uni Watch learned a new word during the Rose Bowl halftime show: rickrack, which was being worn to rather disturbing effect by the Texas marching band.

• Wondering what's gonna happen to all those "USC Threepeat" T-shirts and caps that got printed up? The answer can be found here.

•   Readers Greg Riffenburgh and Barry Moss both noticed that Jamaal Charles was wearing shin guards last week against USC. And Riffenburgh, for one, is unimpressed. "This better not become a trend," he says. "If hand-warmers are sissy, than this is ... wow, I don't think there's even a word for it."

Don't look now, but it's already a trend: Several NFL players wear the 'guards, including Clinton Portis, who's been wearing them for years. And that's fine with Uni Watch. For starters, anything that helps cover up the bare-legged look is a plus. Moreover, it has come to Uni Watch's attention that football is, ahem, a contact sport. Have you ever had a linebacker's helmet drill you in the shin? Uni Watch hasn't, but the strong suspicion here is that it doesn't feel too good. Like, seriously, isn't it a minor miracle that football players don't suffer more broken shins? Uni Watch doesn't hold it against any player who wants to protect against that.

But hand-warmers still look totally wussy.

Paul Lukas thinks it would be cool if helmet visors had little windshield wipers for rainy days. His answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here and archives of his of his "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.